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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Of minds and men

Just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and I wholeheartedly recommend it even though it is 440 pages long. It’s about two black maids in Mississippi in 1963 and a white woman who creates a stir writing about the life of black maids in Mississippi in 1963.

It's not a particularly romantic book. It does, however, have a passage that is fixed in my memory forever.

One character, Celia Foote, is a rube—“white trash” is how someone in the book describes her—and doesn’t know the “proper” way to dress for the formal holiday benefit dance. The other ladies are demure in “swaths of material that hide their bodies” and “ruffles that clutch at their throats,” but Celia…well, this is what her maid, Minny, has to say:

“Oh, my Lord. I might as well be Little Stevie Wonder I am so blinded by that dress. Hot pink and silver sequins glitter from her extra-large boobies all the way down to her hot pink toes…She is rouged, painted (and) one leg peeks out in a high, thigh-baring slit.”

Now, her husband comes from the side of tracks opposite Celia’s, so he knows this is non-conforming attire. “Celia,” he says, “you think that dress might be a little too…um…open at the top?”

“Oh, Johnny,” she responds, “you men don’t know the first thing about fashion.”

And then they arrive at the cotillion.

Husbands drinking their whiskeys stop in mid-sip, spotting this pink thing at the door. It takes a second for the image to register. They stare, but don’t see, not yet. But as it turns real—real skin, real cleavage—their faces slowly light up. They all seem to be thinking the same thing—Finally…But then, feeling the fingernails of their wives, also staring, digging into their arms, their foreheads wrinkle. Their eyes hint remorse as marriages are scorned (she never lets me do anything fun), youth is remembered (why didn’t I go to California that summer?), first loves are recalled (Roxanne…). All of this happens in a span of about five seconds.

But wait—it gets better!

“Look at the chest on that one,” an old geezer says. “Feel like I’m not a year over seventy-five looking at that those things.”

The geezer’s wife lets him feel the brunt of her displeasure, and he says, “Well, what do you want her to do, Eleanor, leave them at home?”

Man, oh man. I cannot read this passage enough times.

Throughout the entire book I had no trouble believing that what Stockett’s black characters were thinking was dead-on. I mean, I don’t know for sure, but I trusted her all the way.

But so accurately does she portray what would be happening in the mind of every heterosexual male in a situation like this that I have to wonder if she...had some help.

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